Shadow Theatre Company's latest offering, Plenty of Time, is sweet, smart and a lot of fun. Like Bernard Slade's Same Time Next Year -- which author John She'vin Foster admits as an influence -- it chronicles a love affair in which the partners meet every year over an extended period of time. This plot allows the playwright to follow the changes both in his protagonists' private lives and in the decades they live through.
Christina and Corey meet during the late 1960s at a tony party in Oaks Bluff, the black section of Martha's Vineyard. She is the hosts' spoiled, pretty daughter and he the busboy she's selected as a bedmate. When he awakens in her luxurious pastel apartment with its nautical trappings (a gorgeously detailed set by Michael R. Duran), Corey immediately dons the dark glasses and black beret that signify he's a member of the Black Panther Party. Christina makes fun of his politics and tries to entice him back to bed -- "Justice is right here, baby." The ensuing conversation is peppered with her cries of "Daddy says" and his responses of "Huey says" We eventually learn that Corey isn't really a tough kid from Chicago's South Side or a Black Panther -- although he'd like to be both. Nor is Christina the sophisticated college girl she's posing as, but a bratty seventeen-year-old. Still, the sex is good, and the couple forms enough of a bond to agree to another meeting the following year.
By the early '70s, Christina -- now Chris -- is an angry feminist in clomping black boots, who defines sex as exploitation. Corey, who's served in Vietnam, wears a red, black and green armband symbolizing pan-Africa and has two illegitimate sons and a taste for pot. After a great deal of sparring, he embarks on a wonderfully funny danced seduction that ends when she turns the tables, chases him around the room and tosses him onto the bed. As the protagonists mature, their encounters get more serious. Corey goes to law school and becomes an assistant district attorney (this struck me as the script's one false note; surely a Panther sympathizer would be drawn to defense). He also discovers that one of his twin sons is gay, something he's unable to accept. Chris abandons her dream of becoming a writer to work on Madison Avenue. She argues with her husband and drinks too much.
Plenty of Time
Ralph Waldo Emerson Center, 1420 Ogden Street
Presented by Shadow Theatre Company through October 7, 303-837-9355, www.shadowtheatre.com
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And finally, years later, as Corey nears retirement age, the couple faces the question of what exactly this decades-long relationship has meant -- the pastel room, the talk, the sex, their ever-deepening understanding of each other, the annual decision about whether to continue the affair or let it die away, the fact that it's a relationship that seems to occur outside normal time. Is this real life or a detour? Is it love? What would have happened if they'd decided to spend their lives together?
Quatis Tarkington and Simone St. John have real chemistry with each other; their timing is deft and their interactions charm. Young actors, they accomplish the difficult feat of aging believably on stage; they both slow down a little as the evening moves on, and their voices deepen. She changes in front of us from a shrill, ditzy teenager to a dignified middle-aged woman. His hair grays almost imperceptibly, and there's an empathetic laugh-groan from the audience when she helps him rise to his feet after he's knelt before her on the floor. Linda Morken's skillful costuming also delineates the passage of time, as does the music and the montage of photographs chosen by director Jeffrey Nickelson and flashed on an upstage screen: Huey Newton and Angela Davis, the iconic shot of the fourteen-year-old girl kneeling and wailing over the body of a slain Kent State student, Patty Hearst posing with a gun before the serpentine symbol of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
I like the idea of the Time Dancer -- played by the gracefully expressive Ashlee Oliver -- moving through the set changes, but the device doesn't entirely work: I found myself frustrated deciding whether to focus on Oliver or the photographs, and I kept missing images or movements I'd like to have seen. And the music with which Nickelson underlines the play's emotional climax is intrusive and unnecessary.
One of the best things about this play is that Foster doesn't use the socio-economic and political differences between his protagonists just for laughs or as some kind of titillating window dressing. On the contrary, their beliefs are integral to the plot. Corey may be a fake Black Panther, but he's a real idealist who finds a way to live his life with integrity. Christina transforms from a spoiled brat to a thoughtful, generous-hearted woman, discovering her own vocation in the process. Plenty of Time is never heavy or didactic; it deploys its insights lightly, and the few moments of sentiment touch us rather than cloy.